The Guillotine: One laugh isn't enough

Twentieth-century classics that won't last No 2: Greta Garbo
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The Independent Culture
Garbo famously wanted to be alone, and in the next century she will be.

Given the increasing availability and expanding repertoire of old movies on video, it may seem perverse to consign a screen star to millennial oblivion, and I'm not suggesting that her work will ever be impossible to track down. Just that the passage of time will eventually dissipate the mythic aura which still attaches to her - Garbo, the queen in self- imposed exile, in whose absence Hollywood became a republic - and only the performances will be left. Since these performances already provoke titters among younger audiences (to the extent that she has any), it's safe to assume that Garbo, who was herself once better-known than the historical figures she played in the cinema (Mata Hari, Marie Waleska, Queen Christina), will soon be only a name, a name as tinnily resonant as the names of those flamboyant monstres sacres of an earlier era - Bernhardt, Duse - of which next to no filmic record has been bequeathed us.

The analogy with the theatre isn't a fortuitous one. Garbo would alternate between letting her hair down to play a wronged woman in some tawdry potboiler (Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise) and pinning it back up again in deference to Pirandello's Nobelised eminence (As You Desire Me), and it was in this schizophrenic oscillation between hack material and someone's idea of high art that, like the great stage actresses of the turn of the last century, she functioned best. Unlike Dietrich, whose recognition of her own outre absurdity made her a creature of celluloid par excellence, Garbo wasn't just a theatrical actress through and through but, in the grandiloquent melancholy of her gaze and the near-hieroglyphic extravagance of her gestures, the last upholder of a now obsolete histrionic tradition whose origins can be dated back to Mrs Siddons and beyond.

The cinema, especially the contemporary cinema, is the art of irony even more than the art of realism, and Garbo's performances were fatally deficient in both. In fact, so incongruous was the notion of "the gloomy Swede", as she was nicknamed, admitting to a sense of humour that, when she finally did, in Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka, MGM's publicity department actually recorded the earth-shattering event by coining the slogan, one of the most celebrated in film history, "Garbo Laughs!" It's the public, alas, that will soon be laughing.

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